Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, Jeremy Butterfield

I was given a copy of Damp Squid: the English language laid bare for Christmas. I’d like to say one of my best friends knows me so well that this was a gift he picked himself, but I asked for the book and he called me a nerd when he gave it to me.

This is the publisher’s description:

How many words are there in the English language and where were they born? Why does spelling ‘wobble’ and why do meanings change? How do words behave towards each other – and how do we behave towards words? And what does this all mean for dictionary-making in the 21st century? This entertaining book has the up-to-date and authoritative answers to all the key questions about our language.

Source: Damp Squid

Jeremy Butterfield edited the recent edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and I have shared some of his articles on Twitter. I admire his work; I think he is an eminently sensible man.

Damp Squid is aimed at a British audience but I am sure an American reader would understand most of the references (or at least understand them enough in context).

I think it is fair to describe the book as a love letter to the Oxford Corpus. The corpus is made up of global English texts, of all types, that can be read electronically. From this, researchers can draw conclusions about how the English language is being used.

BookshelfButterfield uses the corpus to explore the evolution and usage of English. He focuses on how the language is used rather than on prescribed ideas of how it should be used. If you have read some of my previous posts, you are probably aware that I usually write about standard usage rather than ‘correct’ usage. The book gives a good overview of how standard is determined and the problems that arise from trying to present one ‘correct’ version of English.

You might think that a book taking a close look at spelling and grammar would be dry and a bit dull. On the whole, Damp Squid is entertaining and interesting. Butterfield is mostly successful in balancing depth of information with amusing examples (“spam rage – the incandescent anger caused by dozens of emails offering to enhance parts of your anatomy you were perfectly happy with”). The discussion is accompanied by explanatory tables of usage statistics and illuminating quotes from such figures as Samuel Johnson.

All the chapters are clearly written and accessible. You don’t have to be a language expert to enjoy the book but an interest in the English language is probably required.

Two of my favourite chapters are those on where words come from and words that often group together. You might recognise the eggcorn in the title: damp squid. It appears in the chapter discussing idiomatic phrases, and the chapter is fascinating (especially the section comparing idioms from different languages).

I read Damp Squid in a few enjoyable hours (it is 165 pages excluding notes and index). You can find more reviews on Amazon, and you can probably acquire a second-hand copy for a reasonable amount if you fancy adding it to your bookshelf. Or you could start your Christmas list early.

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The Penguin Writer’s Manual, Martin Manser & Stephen Curtis

The Penguin Writer’s Manual features on my list of recommended books and my own bookshelf. The blurb describes it as follows:

The Penguin Writer’s Manual is the essential companion for anyone who wants to master the art of writing good English. Whether you’re composing an essay, sending a business letter or an email to a colleague, or firing off an angry letter to a newspaper, this guide will help you to brush up you communication skills and write correct and confident English.

via The Penguin Writer’s Manual.

BookshelfThe book isn’t as belligerent as that passage makes it sound. The value of this book is probably not in the depth of its explanations. If you need a quick refresher on what an adverbial phrase or a preposition is, this will help. The sections on word usage and vocabulary are also useful.

I think the value of this book is in its advice. The Penguin Writer’s Manual was published in 2002, but its content is still surprisingly relevant. (I am still coming to terms with 2002 being a long time ago.)

If you need to write a business letter but you aren’t sure what to include, the guidelines are well explained with examples of good practice. Other types of communication you may not do on a daily basis are also addressed, such as letters of sympathy or job references.

The authors also give more general advice, including discussions on style and effective communication. Much of the advice is easy to understand and apply, and yet in some ways profound:

One of the wisest uses of time is to think about precisely what it is you wish or need to say.

The book has 352 pages and would be easy to tuck into your bag if you wanted to work outside. You can find the book and more reviews on Amazon, but you can probably pick up a second-hand copy for a very reasonable amount.

Punctuation..? by User Design

User Design has very kindly sent me a free copy of Punctuation..? to review. (I haven’t had any previous involvement with User Design and I am not receiving any kind of payment for this review.)

Punctuation..? aims to explain the functions and uses of 21 punctuation marks. The intended audience seems to be broad, but the content is focused on the British English use of punctuation.

It is a slim book at 36 pages. It is staple bound (or saddle stitched) with the title of the book on the spine.

Used with permission from User Design.

Image used with permission from User Design.

Printed on good quality paper, it feels nice in the hand. However, I don’t think this can help to justify the £10 price tag.

The illustrations are idiosyncratic but charming. They are the main selling point of this publication. Readers who are easily bored should find the often amusing drawings enough reason to keep reading.

I was very pleased to see en dashes and em dashes touched on as well as hyphens. I was also interested to see guillemets, interpuncts and pilcrows included.

Unfortunately, the book is let down by errors, clunky prose and a lack of clarity. I find some of the explanations to be unhelpful or slightly misleading. This is a shame because Punctuation..? could be an excellent introductory guide after a little polishing.

Image used with permission from User Design.

Image used with permission from User Design.

The book is ideal if you want to spark someone’s interest in punctuation. It would also be ideal for a child who finds the topic of punctuation difficult or intimidating.

For adults, you might enjoy it as a quirky primer. But if you want to know how to use punctuation correctly, I can’t recommend anything more than Trask’s Guide to Punctuation.